As an island nation, the sea around us is one of our greatest natural resources and its bounty is renowned across the world. Its bounty, Irish seafood is flown into restaurant kitchens in London, Paris and beyond every day of the week.
Here at home, there is a new appreciation for this delicacy, not just the range available at good fish counters but also the health benefits of marine-sourced fish.
Smoked salmon, from traditional styles fumed in oak chipping to spirit-infused alternatives featuring Dingle gin or Irish whiskey, is one of the key ingredients of an Irish Christmas. As party food bites it is easy to serve, placed on traditional brown bread and salted butter or atop blinis with lashings of chive sour cream and a quick squeeze of lemon.
As the king of fish, Irish smoked salmon not only graces festive tables at home but also forms an integral part of the Christmas menu for those who won’t make it home for the holidays.
Many buy theirs from Union Hall Smoked Fish, which specialises in farmed smoked salmon, hot smoked salmon, smoked mackerel and kippers, which are brined and then slowly oak-smoked in a centuries-old traditional manner in the company’s artisan smokehouse.
SuperValu shoppers also love the West Cork food company’s smoked salmon and smoked mackerel pates. It’s a firm fridge favourite that can form the basis for an impromptu, easy supper with friends or as canapes if you’ve invited guests home for drinks.
Like a great many SuperValu suppliers, Union Hall Smoked Fish is a family-owned business. Originally established by John Nolan and his wife Elmar, the business has been operating from the fishing village of Union Hall for the last 30 years.
It is now being run by the next generation with the founders’ son Sean, and his wife Siobhan, managing the company with Elmar still heavily involved.
“The business started out small smoking a bit of mackerel and salmon,” says general manager Seanie Cahalane. “We have nine full-time people here now. We also have part-time staff who come in during the busy seasons particularly in the run-up to Christmas. We start planning early for Christmas as we look at new lines, packaging, and orders. It’s all very exciting when you see your product on SuperValu shelves and get feedback from store managers on how it’s selling and customers on how much they enjoy it.”
Cahalane is expecting another busy Christmas season. “We have seen demand increase across the board for our products over the years,” he says. “Smoked salmon has always been a favourite during the Christmas season, but there is strong demand for it all-year round now. We brought out a whiskey-infused smoked salmon and pate which SuperValu added to their range for Christmas. They will be in their stores again from early December.”
The relationship with SuperValu goes back to the very beginning. “Field’s SuperValu in Skibbereen was our first customer and other SuperValu stores in the west Cork area quickly followed and started stocking our products,” says Cahalane.
This relationship with SuperValu has seen Union Hall Smoked Fish extend its reach to shoppers throughout Ireland. When it became suppliers of Musgrave it gave the company the opportunity to supply SuperValu stores nationwide. For a small family-run firm in west Cork, that opportunity initially presented challenges which is where the SuperValu Food Academy programme helped enormously as it supported them to scale up the operation in a way they could not have done alone.
Run in conjunction with Bord Bia and the Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs), the programme supports local independent food producers by giving them a chance to bring their products to the mass market.
Food Academy participants receive training in food safety, market research and branding, marketing, finance, sustainability, and other areas. The programme currently supports 290 Irish food and drink producers, many family-run as well as start-ups, to help them make their products available in their local SuperValu stores.
“When we joined the Food Academy in 2015, they worked with us to develop our brand nationwide,” says Cahalane. “It gave us a great boost. Since 2017, we have supplied our products direct to the Musgrave warehouse and from there they get distributed to SuperValu stores around Ireland.”
The programme gives small businesses like Union Hall Smoked Fish the opportunity to grow. It helps to develop small producers who are supplying just a few stores and gives them the knowledge, assistance, and expertise to expand into 30, 40 or even 100 stores, depending on the brand, and the nature of the company involved. “Our products are now in supermarkets in Donegal, Sligo and Galway, for example,” he says. “It wouldn’t have been feasible for us to supply those stores before.”
During Covid the company were worried how it would play out for the business. “We were lucky to have such a strong relationship with SuperValu. The shops were extremely busy and there was very high demand for our products during uncertain times. That was great to see. The relationship with SuperValu has given us a great route to market.”
Christmas is such an important trading time for small producers, says Cahalane. “It’s a time when we can showcase the real quality and taste of local produce. It gives us an opportunity to dial up our sales which for a lot of small producers can keep us buoyant for the rest of the year. We all need to think before we shop and support local and Irish producers as much as we can.”
For a full selection of quality Irish Christmas fare visit your local SuperValu or shop online at supervalu.ie.